By Team ICG® Master Trainer Jim Karanas
We”™re not wired to seek out pain. Human evolution developed and adapted a neurological system and sensory perception for reducing pain and seeking pleasure.
Easy-to-moderate cardio conditioning is of a manageable intensity that feels good. Once someone gets past the initial discomfort of moving the body and sitting on a saddle, riding a bike is pleasurable.
So why do we take our students past that point and encourage them to hurt? And why do we do it ourselves?
There are plenty of good reasons. But the focus of this post is how to encourage new students to recognize the benefits of training at high heart rates and willingly ride into hurt.
Spiritual teachers speak of consciousness, that transcendental thing with the mind that goes beyond the physical universe. What”™s interesting is that more and more studies show that the mind relies upon the physical processes of the brain, yet no one knows exactly how.
In Buddha's Brain, Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius describe how human survival strategies have led to human suffering. That”™s not the topic of this article either, although it”™s a fascinating read. One of these strategies has a direct impact on training intensity — the fact that humans are wired to "hold onto fleeting pleasures and escape inevitable pains."
Haven't you ever noticed how counterintuitive it feels when you contemplate a training or event that will hurt? The guiding principle in the human body is homeostasis. Exercise in general takes us out of homeostasis, and high intensity will take us far out of it — or, in the case of an ultra-endurance event, for a very long time. You might overlook pain for a while if you see enough ads with models and athletes, or read what celebrities do to stay fit. After a time, though, it all sounds somewhat ridiculous. Yet this is what we tell our students to do.
Understand that this is not wrong. There are many reasons to exercise hard and experience hurt. But hard training becomes exhausting unless there”™s a reason for it that goes beyond the usual stuff the industry throws at us — caloric burn, muscle confusion, muscle shock, looking great naked — and the gadgets to make those things happen.
Working with your mind to encourage your body is central to every path of psychological and spiritual development. "Shocking" the body grossly misrepresents the process. There”™s no surprise. We willfully take the body into discomfort for reasons that have little to do with how our physiology reacts to the stress.
The physical benefits of hard training are well documented: increased aerobic capacity, improved ability to burn fat, enhanced metabolic boost, reduced risk of diabetes, reversal of Metabolic Syndrome, greater longevity, increased lean body mass, greater insulin sensitivity, and more.
So, physically, it”™s good for us to go hard. As an instructor, you can recite the above list of benefits every time you take heart rates up in class. It might start out convincing, but the impact of the list will diminish over time, even though the benefits still apply to your students”™ physiology.
Hurt requires a better reason than the benefits list for our students to keep embracing it during training. Again, neurologically, we”™re wired to avoid it. That”™s why we feel apprehension and anxiety before every hard effort that produces serious discomfort.
You”™re on a ride and turn into a stiff, 25-mph headwind that reduces your speed on a flat road to a soul-destroying 6 mph in your easiest climbing gear. You must ride in that direction for another 50 miles. Endurance will not get you through that ride. Strength will not get you through that ride. None of the physical attributes you may have developed through your classes and training will get you through that ride. Only resilience will.
What is resilience? A dictionary definition centers on the ability to recover quickly, to bounce back. In this context, it could be seen as an attitude: ‘It's not that it doesn't hurt. It's just that it doesn't matter.”™ More precisely, it”™s a non-attitude — a non-reaction to the hurt that then leads to acceptance. Bouncing back would be the result.
The road is the road. Being a cyclist means accepting it without judgment. Facing a headwind for 50 miles might be the toughest thing you”™ve ever done, but it's not really good or bad. It's what is.
All the cardio conditioning in the world will not teach you this. You must willingly go into the hurt and discomfort to train yourself to accept what is. The conflict the pain causes you also provides you with the opportunity to overcome it.
The Zen behind it is ‘no attachments, no aversions”™. That way, you”™re always present in the moment, working with what is, and whatever happens is OK. It”™s as applicable in a cycling class as it is on the road. It”™s as applicable in life as it is in training.
The question is whether your students would be willing to hurt to develop these things — focus, presence, acceptance, resilience — and whether you”™re willing as an instructor to develop them enough to teach them.
That”™s why we ride hard enough to hurt.
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Originally posted 2012-06-18 08:23:31.
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Great post Jim – I’m curious, am I alone in feeling frustrated by participants who are clearly not working hard in class?
No John, you are not.
But at least now we have another motivator. I usually tell my classes as we near the last five minutes, “this is why we train, to get here and then keep going!” I like the conflict analogy. I’ll use it.
Thanks for posting. Any frustration is a result of an expectation. This goes back to the “Susan and Bob” post from November of last year. It’s hard not to want our students to accept our classes in the way they were intended but it will only lead to frustration. Ultimately, all we can do is teach the bike in the way we were meant to teach it and be happy if our students are coming to class. What they get from the training is up to them.
I have not felt frustrated by this for a while but I remember the feeling. What it did was motivate me to find new ways to say things and new techniques on how to say them that got more people to listen. That was the essence of this post. “Hard” has to be more than a zone, otherwise, the hurt is not worth it after a while.
One thing I did not discuss in the article is that “working hard” is also a learned process. Some frustration on our part might come from just not recognizing where a student is in the continuum. If a student’s self-awareness during training is at a low level, they’re not working hard might have to do more with lack of focus or discipline.
Thanks, Jim, for emphasizing the role of learning in your last comment. I think we underestimate just how much learning about so many things we are asking our students to do. And I remain frustrated that as instructors we don’t spend much time talking about how learning actually happens and how we can better manage the process for our students – but that’s my hobby horse.
In reference to John’s question – I am very lucky to work with a population that is significantly skewed toward people who have no history of sustained, focused exercise. I have learned a lot from them about what inhibits students as they move toward hard work. FEAR is the factor – fear of the unknown, of their bodies, of the pain, of the social consequences, of failure. Jim refers to it as ‘apprehension’ in his original post but I think that the sensation is much stronger than that in many people.
I am now much better at helping people understand the role that their mind is playing in their reluctance to work hard. One of the most useful tools I have is to actually talk about the fear. Once it is out on the table they can learn how their bodies are programmed to deal with fear and how to develop the ability to overcome their discomfort. I also talk a lot about using the “icky” feelings as cues for constructive behaviour. Allowing people to acknowledge that it feels bad and then letting them put those sensations to work helps a lot.
One of the reasons I love HR monitors is that the real-time data helps a lot of people cope with the fear and other strange messages they are getting from their brains. I don’t expect new students to use any zone or other effort related information with their monitors. I ask them to just learn more about their bodies’ response to effort. With that additional data source they can often over-ride the messages from their brains. That’s the first step toward resilience.
Christine I too use the “icky” place/feeling description in class and talk about how we only need to go there a few times, early in class, before it isn’t that “icky” anymore.
Jim you’re right as usual. I often forget that my role is to only show the path…
Christine: Great points all around. I totally agree with your use of the HRM to mitigate fear and the new sensations that are occurring for our students. Understanding why they physically hurt goes a long way in helping their composure and nothing allows us to explain that better than when they use a HRM. Icky is a new way to describe what we have been talking about. I never thought about using that word so thanks for that.
John: You make a good point. What I find very interesting is that the sensation of hurt changes over time (even within a single class). It always hurts the most the first time as you said. Something else I noticed is that, over the course of time, it never stops hurting, but the sensation is different. This is a different phenomenon from non-reaction and resilience. I find that there is a familiarity to the pain that makes it more sustainable. A coach of mine referred to it as “an old friend”.
Has anyone else had this experience?
I love the ‘old friend’ label. I have a student who coined the term “elephant” to describe the feeling. This came out of an outdoor hill repeat ride where she complained about feeling “three elephants sitting on her chest”. She was genuinely panicked by the feeling but was willing to entertain the concept that the elephants would leave. By the end of the ride she described the elephants as still being there but dressed in circus outfits and trumpeting triumphantly. Elephant has become our shorthand for the change in our outlook toward ‘hurt’.
As I mature as an instructor (an ongoing process that started over 25 years ago when I became a flight instructor) it never ceases to amaze me how such obvious issues like ‘my expectations’ get lost in the effort to do well by our riders. (or flight students) Our learning never ends.
Thanks Jim, for being a stabilizing influence and the voice of reason. Of course, it is about them, not me. I just wrote about this in my connections post. Clearly this is yet another path to total immersion in our craft.
Christine, great point about the fear and it is not just in the cycle studio. This was a huge revelation during our market research for ZONING. The fear factor is onion like in its complexity. Peeling away the layers of fear for our students is helping them build a ladder to higher levels of fitness and personal achievement.
As I read Christine, John and Jim it occurs to me that a line from the movie, A League of Their Own. Tom Hanks (he plays coach Jimmy) says to Gina Davis (great player that is quitting mid season), “…It’s the HARD that makes it GREAT!!”
I was training for my self yesterday and could not not watch people “training” … most of them were just losing theyr time not really challenging anything …
When you have train seriously you know that easy is easy, moderate is moderate, hard is hard and very hard something you don’t like at all. Our lazyness society is just what we see in gym as everywhere, people who expect something but do not want to do anything for it.
You need a lot to educate people to know that they have to go out of theyr confort zone if they want to reach some of theyr goals, nothing is for nothing … in a world where credit card is overused it is a crazy hard job !!!
I do not think it is just fear Jim.
John we perhaps want them to do what we do, we want them to be our image when they train. We have to admit that we have our history they have theyr. How where we want we start training perhaps like them …
I am not a believer of using HRM or Power “ALL THE TIME” but those tool are the best way to control intensity and help those who don’t have it.
Something else, not everybody express hard work the same … you see some pro that look awesome and powerfull but there are starting to fall appart other look armering and in trouble and they are gonna kick a incredible level …
“…in a world where credit card is over used.” Great quote Pascal. You may be on to something.
There once was a world where working hard equated to having more or going farther or getting more done. Expanding waist lines were a sign of affluence and power. Today one does not need to work hard or be patient to get those, just charge it. Worry about how to pay later.
In contemporary times, translated to our world of fitness, I see this contributing to the rise of such products as body wraps, fully insured surgeries and gimmicks like ‘five minute abs’. NO HURT INVOLVED.
But then, I would guess all of us reading this are aware. Explaining the conflict, taking our riders to the hurt, indeed going there with them seems to me to be the best we can do. If I dare say, keep it light, keep it fun, make it safe and care about their hurt.
Everyday is a new day.
I want to make sure you understood my earlier comment that people that come to our classes are all at different places in the fitness continuum. What I mean is that cycling can be a path to understanding ourselves and life more completely but you must develop as an individual. No one’s path is the same. Most beginning students don’t understand why Hard is good (or Great as in Chuck’s quote). This is a lesson that they learn from us and from watching others in class. To those beginners, I think fear of the pain is very real.
However, as you imply, there are others that are lazy. They might even be lazy and know that they are lazy. I understand that. That is their path. There is only so much I can say. I have also had students that used to work incredibly hard but no longer see the reason to work hard. I understand that as well. Suffering is necessary until it is no longer necessary (Buddhist saying).
It sounds as if you are sometimes frustrated with students that don’t work hard. In an earlier reply I suggested reviewing an article that is in the ICI-Pro archives called Susan and Bob. It was written in November of 2011. It talks about having no expectation of your students.
Finally, as Chuck says, if Hard is explained in an interesting way, our words might encourage people to work harder because they will not only feel the physical benefits, but recognize the non-physical benefits as well.
Here’s something I use to explain the benefits of accepting that “hard is great”. When I was rowing competitively I learned the art of using stress and pain as cues for relaxation. When rowers tighten up they can catch a crab and flip their boat while simultaneously getting the butt of the oar in their face. Even one faulty stroke can turtle a flying eight. I transferred the stress/pain=acceptance/relaxation to visits to the dentist and encourage my students to do the same. A surprising number of them do and then identify other areas of their life where they can take the same approach.
Christine: You are a rower. That explains a lot. Great post.